Projection bias, highway hegemony, and why cyclists rent the road, they don’t own it

Bloody cyclists. Don't pay road tax blah de blah

“They think they own the road”: This is a common criticism of cyclists from a large minority of motorists, a gripe seen on forum postings and letters to newspapers the world over.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t meant so seriously. Do you really think you, a cyclist, own the road? A highway, let’s face it, dominated by speeding hulks of steel, glass and angst?

What the kvetchers mean is this: cyclists get in the way of the real owners of the road, motorists.

Cyclists do get in the way at times, and usually for good reason. Sometimes we have to assert our (equal) right to be on the road, a road knowingly shared with motorised vehicles. This assertion normally takes the form of ‘taking the lane’, such as claiming a bit more roadspace when coming towards a pinch-point like one of those small islands with a couple of bollards on. You know, the sort of road furniture that was installed to slow down drivers but which is often seen as a finishing line, to be reached before the soft, squishy cyclist up ahead.

When we dare to grab, for a few seconds, a little bit of real estate for protection, some motorists view that as an act of implied ownership.

How dare we delay them for two seconds? Their time is worth more than our breath.

Grabbing that real estate isn’t a cyclist demonstrating ownership of the road, it’s more like a fleeting rental. As soon as we’re past the pinch-point, back to near the gutter we go, letting the car speed past (until we catch up with them at the next traffic lights).

We have no exoskeletons, we know our place. Why? Because cars and trucks are bigger than us, we’re really in no position to pick fights with vehicles many times our mass and many times faster than us (in the sales brochures, if not always in urban reality) and many times more bruising and crushing than us. A car roof may get the odd slap now and again, from cyclists who may have just had their life threatened, but, in the grand scheme of things, puny flesh and blood can do little against armoured speed.

Of course, we’re fleet of foot and can jiggle through gaps cars can’t, so is this why it’s said we own the roads, because we can percolate? Probably not. That’s just an irritation for the driver who has been sold a dream of ‘the freedom of the road’ but never gets it because there are too many other road-dreamers out there too, the tragedy of the commons.

Some motorists suffer from entitlement issues and project those feelings on to others, including cyclists. According to psychologists, projection bias is a defence mechanism whereby one ‘projects’ one’s own thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. And it’s not just cyclists who get tarred with this Freudian brush, anybody not the motorist risks being an offender.

A motorist will often say they are stuck in traffic, no inkling that they’re an intrinsic part of the blockage. Motorists in front of them are “road hogs”. Motorists going faster than them are “speed-demons” and hence dangerous. Motorists going slower than them are “slow-coaches” and hence dangerous.

Now, not all motorists are this neurotic, this confused. There are some angelic drivers out there, always ceding the right of way, bending to the weak, happy to go slow near schools, never flooring it at the first opportunity, never to be seen with a phone clamped to their collective ear. It’s the minority of bad drivers who have the chip on the shoulder, the need to project the they think they own the road thing on to cyclists.

Scofflaw Driver License Plate USA

Talking about bad drivers, it’s been a while since Nigel Havers has been featured on a cycling blog. As he thinks all of us – all of us, mind – are “bastards”, it’s always good to wheel him out as a bogeyman now and again.

Naturally, he’s said the projection phrase, and on a number of occasions and in a number of places. Hand in hand with the they think they own the roads schtick, is the they don’t pay road tax gibe.

“Why is it that cyclists think the long and winding road was built specifically and only for them? What gives cyclists the right to flout the rules of the road (which, incidentally, I pay for)?”
Sunday Times, 2007

“They think they are all green and motorists are all ungreen. It’s that holier than thou attitude I hate…I was asked what annoys me most. I said cyclists, because they are all bastards…”
The Sunday Times, June 2006

“Unlike motorists, who individually pay hundreds, even thousands, of pounds a year in road tax and petrol duty, sustaining the upkeep of the network, cyclists get free use of our streets. Just as they pay no tax but use the roads freely, so cyclists are subject to absolutely no parking restrictions. Cyclists have certainly changed in recent years. They think the rest of us are idiots and that they are the gods of the road.”

But here’s the kicker:

“Moral superiority does not lie in boasting of green awareness while marauding around the streets. It really belongs to those who are aware of the needs of others and of wider society, even if they are seated behind the wheel of a car.”
Daily Mail, June 2006

So, there you have it. Motorists are morally superior and are aware of the needs of others.

What colour is the sky in Nigel Havers’ world?

He suffers from motormyopia, a blindness fused with a touch of me-myself-I bigotry.

And because motormyopians believe they’ve paid for the road, anybody who they perceive to be freeloaders on “their” roads must be accused of the very trait being complained about.

And Nigel Havers isn’t alone. Far from it. There’s a Facebook group called i hate cyclists who think they own the road (2289 people have liked it) and a poster to the forum said:

“Every cyclist that I see thinks they own the road and can do what they like to hold up motorists even though they don’t pay road tax, if a car is paying road tax to use the roads surely cyclists should pay road tax too given the amount of nuisance they cause.

“Cyclists, horses etc have a legal right to the roads but they should not inconvenience cars, car drivers paying tax get priority on the road IMHO.” is a site is all about how motorists do not directly pay for roads.

A motorist has equal rights on the road, not superior rights.

But, for some thinkers, this right to equal space is not carried through to its logical conclusion. Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, and creator of that city’s bike path network, recently said:

“If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with a hundred passengers has a right to a hundred times more road space than a car with one person. This is not communism, this is basic democracy. A child with a tricycle has the same right to road space as a car driver. Equality!”

The ‘they think they own the roads’ projection bias isn’t just a psychological funny, it can have real world consequences. Drivers have been known to target cyclists, aiming their cars at bones that break.

University of Alberta associate professor of Public Health J. Peter Rothe researched projection bias and the tragedy of the commons for his book Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons.

He wrote:

“Self-interest in traffic, from a psychoanalyst’s view, stems from the fact that people are the centre of their own worlds, seeking what they believe is in their best interest and avoiding that which is not in their interest. The search for personal best interest beyond all other goals leads us into competitive situations with others who also seek what is best for them. This is nowhere more evident than on public roadways.”

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The increase in hate comments against cyclists – facilitated and fuelled by the internet – perhaps indicates we’re being noticed. To some motorists we’re still an out-group, but a growing one. This threatens their hegemony of the highways. Expect much more projection bias down the road.

++++++++++ is an ironically-named campaign supporting the road rights of cyclists. The message that cyclists have equal rights on the roads is carried on iPayRoadTax t-shirts and jerseys.